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A Quarter-Life Crises: Hidden Defaults & The Zeigarnik Effect

Working a job you hate has mental and physical long term effects. In this post I explain my personal account of experiencing the negative symptoms of the Zeigarnik Effect and how I finally quit my day job.

Co-founder of Kickstarter, Yancey Strickler, wrote a book titled This Could Be Our Future. 

In this book, Strickler introduces Hidden Defaults in our society which is defined as an unseen force that has an influence on the world, “a magnetic north that tugs us in its direction (page. 23).” 

He goes on to describe the hidden default of financial maximization in America, how previous generations proposed and accepted this to be the driving force in any decision, and how this lens on life has limited our imagination for the future. His book explores, elaborates and defends a simple idea — “That a world of scarcity can become a world of abundance if we accept a broader definition of value.” 

Now, I am going to take that same concept and explain it through my own personal story, how I realized I needed a broader definition of value, and how making this change has shifted not only my mindset, but also my physical health, mentality, and overall emotional well being. 

1. The Hidden Default.  

After about a year into graduating college and working as an administrative assistant, I stepped into a career path as a database manager. Like most millennials, paying off student loans and becoming financially independent was my number one priority. 

This is a very important priority of course, but one that made me put aside my own personal values and standards of what defined me – a creative individual – and instead of searching for a more fitting opportunity, I grabbed the first thing and tried to make it fit – for five years. As financial stability and financial abundance started to appear in my life, the more I convinced myself that this was the path I needed to take. I was able to travel internationally every year, have a flexible schedule, and paid sick leave, what more can you ask for?

Intrinsically I struggled. I was up for the challenge of learning a very technical role and in many ways, I succeeded. But it took a lot of my mental and emotional energy to work in a headspace that wasn’t always natural for me. With the nature of the job function, and a continuous steep learning curve, I was experiencing the negative symptoms of the Zeigarnik Effect. 

2. What’s the Zeigarnik Effect?

The Zeigarnik effect states that unfinished or interrupted tasks are profoundly louder in your brain and take up a lot of space. People remember incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. 

In the short term, if a task is actually manageable, this is a positive, motivating effect that encourages you to solve a problem to its end.

But it can also have a negative effect. For me, I was in a job function where I was “drinking out of a firehose”, so to speak. I would work for months on trying to complete one project- such as cleaning up the titles in a salutation (Example: Mr. and Mrs. Smith) for 25,000 individuals in a database. This would require taking data out in the form of an excel sheet, with about 27 columns, and 25,000 rows; cleaning them up in excel, then importing them back into the software which, importing alone had its own set of battles. Keep in mind, I do not know how to code, I have limited formula ability within excel, and as working with a non-profit goes sometimes money is an issue when it comes to acquiring helpful tools to get the job done faster, not to mention the time needed to research and implement those tools. 

Week after week of working on projects like the one described above, more projects and requests would line up in my queue, and instead of celebrating Fridays, I’d dread the whole weekend knowing I would be walking back into what felt like a ball and chain to my desk. My intrinsic motivation was wearing thin.

At one point the Zeigarnik Effect motivated me to find a way to complete these projects, to learn something challenging, and to take pride in the tedious work I was doing. It even made me feel like a badass. But as the Zeigarnik Effect states, unfinished problems loom in your brain and take up your brain space. If they are left unresolved, anxiety and stress start to ensue.

My mind, body, and emotions were consumed with stress. Physical symptoms started to occur — tight chest pains, shortness of breath, weight gain, and migraines. But I kept telling myself this was all part of being an adult. This is what it meant to have a career.

3. The Clarity.

It was the hidden defaults of financial maximization that kept me going two years longer than I could stand it. I kept accepting this self-torture thinking that my salary was all worth it and I needed the experience. But after many emotional nights, my husband finally convinced me to quit.

The hardest part in all of this is realizing that I don’t want to fit into the mold that we are told to fit into. If not this, then what do I do?

Then there is the comfort issue right? How do I go from making all this money to not not making any money? Passion over paycheck? Can I do it? Do I have it in me? I guess that’s the problem with hidden defaults… is that we can’t imagine any other way.

These are all questions I am in the process of exploring, and what better time than in self quarantine right? lol.

I can’t say I’ve reached my clarity point yet.. so I guess I’m as far down the road as I can take you.

As I continue to find clarity, I turn to these books and podcasts. They may be of interest to you too:

Meditations For Women Who Do Too Much by Anne Wilson Schaef

Don’t Keep Your Day Job by Cathy Heller

To Be Magnetic podcast and Online Manifestation courses by Lacy Phillips

To end this very unclear “clarity” ending, I’ll leave you with a quote from the book Meditations for Women Who do too Much.

Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.

4 comments on “A Quarter-Life Crises: Hidden Defaults & The Zeigarnik Effect

  1. This is terrific – I had never heard of the Zeigarnik Effect – fascinating

    • Thank you- yes it’s interesting! This was a hard post to write trying to find the balance between talking about myself but not too much. Thanks for reading and commenting 😊

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